Czech ruling coalition wins big in regional ballot

PRAGUE (AP) " The three parties in the Czech Republic's ruling center-left coalition dominated the election for the country's regions and are ahead in the first round of voting for Parliament's upper house, according to results released Saturday by the Czech Statistics Office.

With votes from almost 100 percent of ballot stations counted, the ANO (YES) movement led by Finance Minister Andrej Babis was a clear winner, claiming nine of the 13 regions contested in the two-day vote Friday and Saturday.

Of the other two members of the ruling coalition, the leftist Social Democrats of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, who used to dominate the regions, won only two, while the Christian Democrats took one. The final region saw a victory by a group of local mayors.

As a newly established centrist movement, Babis' group came a surprise second in the 2013 parliamentary election with an-anti corruption message. The results Saturday cemented its position as the strongest Czech political group and favorite to win next year's Parliamentary vote. That would pave the way for the billionaire Babis, the country's most popular politician and its second-riches businessmen, to become the next prime minister.

"It's a very good result. It's a boost for us," Babis said.

ANO participated in the regional elections for the first time.

"The voters preferred a change," Sobotka said.

Both said the result won't affect the ruling coalition, which benefited from the country's economic growth in recent years.

It was the first ballot since Europe's migration crisis hit last year and included several anti-migrant parties even though the Czech Republic has not been on traditional migration route through Europe. Of those parties, which also voiced opposition to the country's European Union membership, only one won seats in the regional assemblies.

The three coalition parties also have the most candidates advancing to next weekend's runoffs for 27 seats in the 81-seat Senate. No candidate reached the 50 percent threshold to win outright, so the top two finishers in each district will face each other.

With votes from 99.6 percent of ballot stations counted, ANO was leading with 14 candidates advancing to the runoffs, while eight made the runoffs for both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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